Review: Territoriality and Conflict in an Era of Globalization: eds. Miles Kahler & Barbara Walter

Miles Kahler and Barbara Walter’s edited volume, Territoriality and Conflict in an Era of Globalization, is one of the latest effort by international relations scholars to explain the lack of national deterritorialization in the face of globalization.  The volume is thematically broad, divided into three sections.  The authors in the first attempt to explain the origins and causal mechanisms behind territorial attachment and detachment, while those in the second examine the relationship between territorial stakes and violent conflict.  The third section then explicitly analyzes the effects of globalization on international territorial regimes themselves. 

Given my interest in the relationship between domestic perceptions of appropriate territoriality and land claims by the state, the first section of the volume in particular offers insights that will be useful for my own work.  H.E. Goemans’ chapter, “Bounded communities: territoriality, territorial attachment, and conflict,” is of particular interest to those seeking a coherent theory of homeland claims.  Utilizing a rational choice framework drawn from the work of Thomas Schelling, Goemans’ argues that political elites purposefully construct the boundaries of the national homeland around focal principles which clearly delineate in- and out-groups and territories vis-a-vis the “nation.”  In doing so, the state socializes the public to be willing to defend the state within these boundaries while limiting the ability of sovereign to demand similar sacrifices outside them (27).

Defined by “some sort of principle or rule that has wide (preferably universal) applicability and that is simple enough to be interpreted by all concerned” ([Kreps 1990, 93] 32), plausible focal points must be drawn not only from simple calculations of costs to enforcement but also from common knowledge.  Most often then, borders take into account natural frontiers like rivers and mountains lowering enforcement costs and cartographic preference for straight lines that reduce zones of contact between sovereigns and make the state map more recognizable as a national icon.  More importantly, rulers attempt to fit state boundaries to cultural and historical sensitivities maximizing group homogeneity and territorial congruity with prior historical formulations (35-44).  Once taken-for-granted, they make enforcement of state sovereignty less costly, contribute to national unity, and signal long run credibility with regard to limiting sovereign power vis-a-vis neighbors (33-34). 

Although useful as a model of territorial delimitation, it is doubtful that state boundaries and public perceptions of the appropriate expanse of their homeland could ever be so purposefully constructed.  Particularly in the contemporary era where almost all international borders are well-established and considered inviolable under international law, political elites are not free to select boundaries that fit these rational conditions.  Unless they choose to engage in risky behaviors such as irredentism or territorial aggrandizement, they must work within the framework that the international system has already laid out for them.  Moreover, while sensitive to the public’s “common knowledge,” Goemann’s functionalist account neglects the ongoing dialectical relationship that frequently exists between rulers and subject populations in determining appropriate national space outside of purely authoritarian contexts.  The author’s cyclical logic in this regard, that the “territory becomes the ‘homeland’ precisely because it is to be commonly defended,” denies the possibility of this dynamic outside of a self-reinforcing path-dependence and leaves uninvestigated the actual sources of common knowledge upon which territorial claims are grounded (27).

To substantively understand the paradox of persistent high valuation of territorial claims by states and peoples in an era of globalization, it must be recognized, as most authors in this first section of the volume do, that territory has meaningful symbolic and well as concrete material dimensions.  Joel Robbins’ chapter, “On giving ground,” provides a unique narrative of territorial detachment examining the transformation of social and religious practice in one culturally isolated tribe in Papua New Guinea.  Prior to external contact, the Urapmin’s attachment to their territory was highly emotionally charged and bound up with religious myth and group history.  With growing integration with the modern economy slowly enveloping their territory, members converted to Pentecostal Christianity.  With its spiritual de-emphasis on territorial attachment and focus on individualized ritual, the Urapmin’s practice of Pentacostalism led them to devalue their ancestral lands and actually seek mass relocation in exchange for economic wealth and modernization.  While it is highly unlikely that the social “evolution” witnessed in this case could or should be promoted in other contexts, it does highlight the important (and potentially transformational) role played by national culture and religious ritual in conditioning collective attachment to territory. 

David Newman’s chapter, “The resilience of territorial conflict in an era of globalization,” follows a similar vein.  He argue that where territory matters as an economic resource or strategic asset, it is ultimately divisible and not inherently prone to sparking inter-group conflict.  Symbolic elements of territorial attachment, on the other hand, “are rooted in their perceptions of exclusive ancestral homelands, filled with sites, locations, and myths that form an integral part of their national identity,” and, as such, are not readily subject to negotiation (99).  Highlighting symbolic territorial claims particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian case, Newman argues for a “multidimensional” understanding of territoriality which considers how territory is used by political elites in particular to structure intercommunal power relations, shape national emotional attachments to land, and define collective selves and others. 

Newman does not explain, however, what this multidimensional understanding would in fact look like.  Rather than explore the origins, legitimacy, or social processes by which these symbolic claims find meaning and political expression, he instead argues it is necessary to circumvent these claims to achieve conflict resolution.  While maintaining that negotiations must deal with symbolic and emotional claims, he believes it is necessary to “gradually transform the public discourse surrounding the conflict from the level of the symbolic to the tangible” thereby re-framing the conflict in terms that are ultimately divisible (100).  Such an understanding leans heavily on the assumption that these claims are generated primarily by top-down pressures and that shifts in discourse at the elite level will lead to greater willingness to accept compromise on the mass level. 

Although consistent with many conventional approaches to territorial conflict resolution, particularly those that emphasize territory as an economic and strategic asset, it sits rather uncomfortably with his emphasis on non-tangible dimensions of territorial behavior.  If claims on the ground are largely determined by intentional territorial policies of the state, as he seems to suggest with regard to Israeli settlement policy, it makes little sense to dwell on whether such claims are material or symbolic (93-94, 98-100, 105-6).  If, however, symbolic claims are deeply rooted in the cultural schema and political practices of the parties in question, it may be considerably more efficient and just to engage with these beliefs and seek their explicit accommodation.

Terrence Lyons’ final chapter of the section, “Diasporas and homeland conflict,” also emphasizes the role of homeland as a symbolic space but for those groups which have been forcibly detached from it.  While he does not argue that the attitudes and actions of diaspora communities alone determine the outcome of violent conflicts in the countries from which they are from, he does examine whether these groups frame conflicts in the homeland in ways that inhibit (or enable) conflict resolution.  Conflict-generated diasporas, he suggests, are more likely than other types of migrants to maintain aspirations to return home, little interest in building transnational virtual communities in place of a physical return, and to reject political compromise in their home conflicts (114-6).  While stopping far short of demonstrating a clear causal link between diaspora political activity and the perpetuation of conflict, he does provide much anecdotal evidence to this effect particularly with regard to the Ethiopian communities in the United States and Germany (120-3).  Perhaps more importantly, he shows how diaspora engagement with homeland conflicts, particularly in the case of Northern Ireland, can contribute to their cessation (126-127).  The ideas presented here are nascent and beg further theoretical and empirical development, but Lyons has certainly made clear that they are worth pursuing.

The project as a whole should be commended for its empirical scope and methodological pluralism.  In the first section alone, the reader is presented with a rational choice model of territorial conflict, an in-depth anthropological study, a quasi-constructivist analysis of territorial attachment, and a sociological examination of diaspora group behavior.  The second section presents three chapters utilizing formal models to explain the relationship between state size and patterns of interstate conflict, globalization, economic development, and territorial conflict, and the role of distance as a factor in the globalization of armed conflict.  The final section is also topically varied with one chapter on the growth of American territorial legal jurisdiction and the other modeling the relationship between trade, international borders, and conflict.

Unfortunately Territoriality and Conflict packs considerably less analytical and theoretical punch than predecessor volumes such as Ian Lustick and Brendan O’Leary’s Right-Sizing the State.  Unlike the aforementioned work, Kahler and Walter’s volume is driven by the empirical question found in its title rather than a particular theoretical framework.  While the nine substantive chapters in this volume each suggest new directions and potentially valuable insights for research on territoriality and conflict, little is developed in terms of a coherent research program.  Instead, the value of this collection is to be found in its efforts to open a broad conversation on the contemporary status of sovereign territoriality.  In a time when the role and status of international boundaries are increasingly questioned, their further critical examination is sure to be a worthwhile endeavor.  This volume provides numerous jumping off points for anyone willing to take on the challenge.

2 Responses to Review: Territoriality and Conflict in an Era of Globalization: eds. Miles Kahler & Barbara Walter

  1. Hein Goemans says:

    I agree with your criticism of my chapter. I think that my perspective, notwithstanding your criticism, is useful in exposing a relatively simple, but powerful dynamic of territoriality.

    • arielzellman says:

      Hi Hein, so nice of you to stop by! Now a bit older and more experienced since I wrote this review, I find myself more and more sympathetic to your argument. Oh to be a know-it-all grad student again…

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